The general election result confounded the expectations of the media, the Tories and the right of the Labour Party. Ian Taylor analyses what the Corbyn surge and the Tories’ deepened crisis mean for socialists — and asks how we can turn our side’s boosted confidence into action against Tory rule.
The 8 June general election marked a shift in the balance of class forces in Britain. A Tory government expected to return with a majority of 60 to 100 seats was knocked back on its heels. Even on the morning of the election Theresa May was advised she could expect a majority of 92. And the Labour right, which has held sway in the party since the 1980s and on most key issues is barely distinguishable from the Tories, was also dealt a staggering blow.
But the shift was not decisive because without action to follow up on Corbyn’s electoral success it could prove no more meaningful than the two minutes millions of us spent individually in polling stations. But it marks a shift nonetheless — a fact reflected in the reaction of the Tories, the establishment and the media on the one hand, and in the spring in the step of all who voted Labour on the other, a mood tangible in workplaces on the morning of 9 June and on the streets in the days following.
When the Queen was praised for a speech noting a “sombre national mood” in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster it contrasted sharply with the jeers on the street for May. But “sombre” primarily described the mood of the bosses’ class, not that of the 40 percent who voted Labour. Excitement and anger, as well as concern at the number of terror attacks and fears of a racist reaction, more capture the mood among millions.
The dangers inherent in the situation were all too clearly demonstrated by the attack on the Finsbury Park mosque and the resurgence of Islamophobic marches. But we still dare savour an election outcome which led Rupert Murdoch reportedly to storm out of the Times election night party within an hour of digesting the exit poll, the Daily Telegraph front page headline on 9 June to declare “Britain votes for chaos” and the Financial Times to describe May’s desperate deal with the bigots of the DUP as “squalid”.
The result presents enormous opportunities to turn the tide of austerity, and neoliberal and racist reaction. The question is for how long these opportunities persist and how much we make of them. The forces committed to closing them off will regroup as soon as they are able.
The outcome dealt a fresh blow to global capital. It sent shock waves through the British ruling class which must contend not only with the uncertainty and instability which comes from the commitment of the leading party of UK business to a Brexit project which harms the core interests of that class, but also now with the clear prospect that a Corbyn-led Labour Party can win government.
Indeed, only the Tories’ determination to stop this eventuality by avoiding another election allowed May to continue as leader despite being left devoid of authority. Only a month earlier, seemingly the only question had been how big the Tory majority would be. Instead a Tory civil war has resumed full force and May is dismissed as “a dead woman walking” by her former colleague and now editor of the London Evening Standard, George Osborne.
May sought an enhanced majority to allow her to ignore the factions in her own party. Now she cannot control her own cabinet. She and her backers also saw what they believed to be an opportunity to destroy Labour for a generation.
The majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party and its supporters in the media shared that belief and in some cases that desire. Barely a fortnight before the election there was open speculation that 100-plus Labour MPs would desert to join a new centre party following annihilation at the polls.
Recall that 172 Labour MPs backed the attempt to unseat Corbyn last year, supporting a vote of no confidence in his leadership in the wake of the Brexit referendum. In the event, Labour captured 40 percent of the vote, on a par with the results of 1997 and 2001, when all talk prior to 8 June had been about whether the result would be as bad for Labour as 1983 or 1931.
This was despite the myriad attacks on Corbyn generated by the Labour centre and right — the endless accusations of “weak leadership” and “incompetence” in the Guardian and appeals to tactical voting, of which Tony Blair provided only the most abject example in calling for a vote for anyone who “doesn’t support a hard Brexit”. (See Shaun Doherty, p14, for more on the Labour right.)
The polarisation in British society revealed by the election is stark. Tories and Labour between them took 82 percent of the vote on a relatively high turnout. Labour’s vote was the highest for an opposition party since 1970.
The UKIP vote collapsed along with the political aspirations of its foul leader Paul Nuttall. There was an overwhelming rejection of the Liberal Democrats and their attempt to turn the election into a re-run of the EU referendum, no doubt as non-Tories recalled that voting Liberal in 2010 meant a Tory government.
In Scotland, the SNP passed its high water mark as Scottish Labour retook some seats, but the Tories did even better amid a reaction against the experience of the SNP in government. Indeed, Scotland proved the one bright spot for the Tories. (See Iain Ferguson’s piece, p9, for more on Scotland.)
However, overall the election brought class politics to the fore. The campaign put Corbyn’s agenda in the spotlight and the result placed it centre stage.
As Sally Campbell wrote in last month’s Socialist Review: “The launch of Labour’s manifesto represented a real shift in the mood. Here was a manifesto which for the first time in 30 years attempted to tackle the effects of neoliberalism.”
The manifesto threw out New Labour’s Tory-aping policies, replacing them with pledges to tax the rich, end NHS privatisation and abolish tuition fees. Corbyn was explicit about what was on offer, describing the election as “the establishment versus the people”. What Labour leader of the past 40 years has made such a direct appeal to class or suggested such a polarisation? As a consequence, class issues dominated the election.
Into this atmosphere erupted the Grenfell Tower fire disaster — with the 80 confirmed dead, the thousands homeless and displaced, widely seen as victims of class-based, housing-apartheid policies driven by successive Tory and Labour governments and local councils in league with property developers and financiers.
That the fire occurred in the wealthiest borough in the country, in the area of the capital with the highest number of Ultra High Net Worth Individuals (multi-millionaires), under a council that acted as a poster-child for Tory local government, made the class nature of the disaster clearer to millions. Corbyn’s response perfectly captured the class nature of the disaster as he demanded the government requisition empty buildings for those made homeless. “Occupy it, compulsory purchase it, requisition it – there are a lot of things you can do,” he told ITV’s Robert Peston. (See Glynn Robbins, p4, for more on Grenfell.)
Had voters bent to the will of the Labour right, the anti-Tory vote would have dissipated, Tory rule would be uncontested, May would be triumphant and Corbyn under pressure to go amid wholesale assertions of a popular rejection of anti-austerity, pro-working class policies.
Now two reasons advanced for the election result are rapidly becoming accepted “wisdom”. Both deny the impact of Corbyn’s appeal to class.
One puts it all down to May’s wooden personality and her controlling advisers, who ran a woeful campaign and messed up the Tory manifesto with the threat of “a dementia tax” on which the prime minister then performed a U-turn, making a mockery of her claim to be “strong and stable”. According to this view, May’s first mistake was to call an election at all.
There is an element of truth to this. May is as awkward as she appears — all commentators attest to it. But her personality was touted as a strength until she lost her majority. Her decision in April to call an election was widely hailed by Tory commentators. The Daily Telegraph called it “a bold decision, one that affords Mrs May the opportunity to become as dominant a figure on the political stage as Margaret Thatcher 30 years ago.”
The Tory manifesto was given no less of a warm welcome. The Daily Mail described it as “By any standards an extraordinary document: detailed, deadly serious, utterly candid and unashamedly moral.”
The second, more important argument is that age, not class, was the decisive factor. It’s argued that Corbyn succeeded in mobilising a high proportion of students and voters aged 18 to 24. This is undoubtedly true, but it’s not the whole story. It is also argued Labour benefited from an anti-Brexit backlash. Again this by no means explains the vote.
There isn’t space here for a detailed analysis of voting patterns. But the Financial Times, in its analysis of the result, noted “a Labour surge unconstrained by geography or demographics”.
It reported: “Labour gained the most ground on the Conservatives in seats with high Remain votes… [But] the link between the Remain vote and the Labour surge was negligible. Labour’s broad-based surge appears not to have been constrained or driven either by demographics or attitudes to Brexit.”
The FT also noted: “Much has been made of the role young people played in Labour’s late polling surge… What is more remarkable is the extent to which Labour did not rely on any single demographic.”
In a separate article on the same topic, the FT reported: “Labour enjoyed huge leads among the 18-24 cohort… But information from polls by [Tory] Lord Ashcroft suggest that at least two other groups were at least as, and possibly more important. The 30-45 vote also broke strongly for Labour. In 2010, Labour was about 3 percent ahead among this group of voters. By 2015 it was nearer 14 percent. In this election the gap was 36 percent. The Tories also lost ground in the 35-44 age group where the gap is now 20 percent.”
So Labour support surged among adults aged under 45. It also surged, another piece of FT analysis suggested, “among private renters” from a six-point gap in favour of the Tories in 2010 to a 23-point gap in favour of Labour this time, and a gap among all voters in rented housing from a seven-point lead for Labour in 2010 to a 37-point lead (2017). Labour also made “noticeable gains in university towns [such as Canterbury] and large urban centres”, the FT and many other sources reported.
And what is it that unites vast numbers of the young, students (half of young adults attend university at some point), those living in urban areas and/or in rented housing, if not class?
The initial ruling class panic, the headlines such as “Tories tell May: You have 10 days” (Sunday Times) have somewhat dissipated. May has been granted a temporary reprieve as “a caretaker prime minister, living on borrowed time” (Financial Times).
But the government is profoundly weakened and deeply unstable. May lost ten senior advisers in the week following the election, including half the senior figures at the Department for Exiting the EU (Dexeu) along with the minister responsible for pushing Brexit legislation through parliament, prompting Dominic Cummings — one of the leading figures behind the Vote Leave referendum campaign — to denounce the department as “a total shambles”.
A survey of business confidence by the Institute of Directors after the election found 20 percent of business leaders optimistic about the UK economy over the next 12 months and 57 percent pessimistic — a balance of minus 37 points which followed one of minus three in May.
Never mind business — the latest economic data shows average living standards in Britain falling again as earnings lag increasingly behind inflation. Incomes are now no longer forecast to return to the level of 2008 even by 2021!
What is to be done?
The question now is what is to be done with the anger and support for Corbyn? We must discount some of the more wildly optimistic post-election conclusions, such as Owen Jones’s claim that, “Labour is now permanently transformed. Its policy programme is unchallengeable.” Would this were true. The Labour Party machine remains in the hands of the party’s right. It will regroup and is already working to roll back the “transformation”.
There is no shortage of examples of this, despite an understandable reluctance to go public among Corbyn’s many opponents in the parliamentary Labour Party and its hangers on. Former shadow chancellor Chris Leslie wasted no time in deriding Labour’s performance as “not good enough”, declaring on Radio 4, “We shouldn’t pretend this is a famous victory.”
Former Labour minister John Spellar likened Labour’s election performance to “a life sentence instead of a firing squad”. An unnamed Welsh MP told the Sunday Times, “Under a better leader we would have smashed this one out of the court.” An anonymous “northern MP” claimed in the same newspaper, “We lost 15 percent of our vote through people saying they wouldn’t vote Jezza”, and so on.
At the same time, calls for a “progressive alliance” already touted by the likes of Labour’s Clive Lewis will grow.
In these circumstances, it’s vital Corbyn continues to campaign and address rallies, articulating class opposition to the Tories. His declaration that he will tour Conservative marginal seats in preparation for a government collapse is most welcome.
Corbyn will be under enormous pressure to adapt from the many Labour MPs who, though delighted to win their seats, detest what he stands for and are determined to change or get rid of him.
All those on the side of Corbyn should aim to turn the class feeling that delivered the Labour vote into class action.
Surveys show a majority support Corbyn’s policies
The pleasant surprise we all experienced at Jeremy Corbyn’s excellent performance at the general election was perhaps less surprising in the light of key social attitudes analysed in recent years.
Ever since Thatcher’s landslide victory in 1983 and throughout the Blair-Brown years, it has been assumed that a majority of the British people — cutting across class — accept the notion that the market must reign supreme in all aspects of political and social policy.
Recent British attitude surveys challenge this claim. After seven years of Tory-Liberal and Tory rule, there has been a backlash against austerity.
For the first time since the financial crash of 2007-8, more people (48 percent) support increased taxation and greater public spending, as against 44 percent who want tax and spending levels to remain where they are.
Moreover, 42 percent agree that government should redistribute income from the better off to the less well-off compared to 28 percent who disagree. Shortly before the crash fewer people supported redistribution than opposed it (34 percent and 38 percent respectively in 2006).
However, although these results represent significant changes compared with recent years, they only represent a partial move back to an earlier mood.
The 48 percent who now want more taxation and spending compares favourably with a joint-record low of 32 percent in 2010 but less favourably with the highs of 63 percent in 1998 and 65 percent in 1991.
People’s main priorities have remained constant: health and education top the list.
Some 83 percent believe the government should spend more or much more on health and 71 percent on education.
But six in 10 also want more spending on the police.
YouGov research stretching back to 2013 shows strong public support for the renationalisation of the railways, water companies and other utilities — 58 percent compared to 17 percent against.
Increasing the top rate of tax for people earning over £150,000 from 45 percent to 60 percent is favoured by 52 percent with 23 percent against.
Increasing the minimum wage to £10 an hour wins the support of 61 percent with 19 percent against.
On the crucial issue of rent, a further YouGov poll found that 60 percent of British people, including 42 percent of Conservatives, support the introduction of limits on the amount landlords can charge tenants.
It was this finding that prompted Ed Miliband to declare in 2015 that the Tories had lost their claim to be the “party of home ownership”.
An additional finding was that 32 percent of those polled thought Labour would handle housing best, compared to 21 percent who believed the Tories would.
However, these positive findings need to be tempered by others that indicate majority support for right wing ideas.
Some 66 percent of respondents supported stopping benefits for people who refused to accept an offer of employment, with 17 percent opposed.
A similar 66 percent favoured ending parole for murder convicts so that they spend their entire lives in prison, again with 17 against.
A disturbing 50 percent supported ending all government expenditure on overseas aid, with 34 percent opposed.
And a predictable 54 percent supported a total ban on immigration for the next two years, with 33 percent against.
As for a breakdown of the figures by political party, Conservative and UKIP voters tended on balance to support all the policies listed above: some 48 percent of Tory voters even favoured rail nationalisation, compared to 35 percent against.
Labour voters tended to support all except a total ban on immigration for two years (net -1) and stopping all overseas aid (-13).
These were the two least popular policies overall but still supported by 54 percent and 50 percent of all respondents respectively.
In conclusion, Jeremy Corbyn is clearly in tune with the majority on these issues and was right to campaign on investing in the public sector. However, work needs to be done to win people over on the questions of immigration and foreign aid.
Nevertheless, these attitude surveys augur well for the left as a whole and for a future Corbyn victory.